Are French oysters the best in the world?
Ask any Frenchman or woman and they'd look at you as if you're crazy to even think they may not be. And justifiably so. If you've eaten them before, or whether you're curious and about to experience them for the first time, there's nothing in the world quite like French oysters.
Many countries produce lots of wonderful oysters. However, no country in the world can offer a more complete oyster experience than France. Regardless of the quality of the service, the French stance is that you should feel privileged to be served the finest oysters in the world.
In modern times, France was the first country in Europe to begin producing oysters on a large scale. The process is known as 'L'ostréiculture' and the growers are known as 'Ostréiculteurs'. The oyster business is taken very seriously by growers, marine biologists, and by French connoisseurs, which is basically everyone in France! France controls more than 2,000 miles of coastline, featuring some of the finest oyster beds in the world.
In the 19th century, there were three oyster capitals in the world: Paris, London and New York. Although fabulous oysters are still served in London and New York, Paris remains supreme. To this day, the city offers many opportunities to enjoy oysters, in restaurants or from a side walk vendors. Some kind of dry white wine or Champagne is generally suggested as an accompaniment. The classics in Paris are oysters from legendary French oyster cultivation areas such as Cancale, Marennes-Oléron, and Arcachon. The coast of France also offers fantastic oyster experiences. Virtually anywhere along the French coastline (including the Mediterranean) delicious oysters are served, and at a fraction of the cost of oysters in Paris. There is no finer experience than dining on oysters overlooking the Thau lagoon as the sun goes down.
Oysters have been part of the French diet for centuries. Since Roman times, they have been farmed in the Lagune de Thau, in the Mediterranean, and in the Bay of Arcachon. Then, the only species available was the plate, or flat oyster (Ostrea edulis), more commonly known as the Belon.
The plate is the oyster lover’s oyster. Its dense, slightly metallic and challenging flavour is satisfying, and, if you've already started on the wine, evokes dreamy images of misty Breton shores and the clanking of small boats as they dock to unload their catch. Indeed, although they are raised in a few other coastal areas, plates are primarily linked with Brittany. When they are three years old and fully mature, they are transferred to an estuarial environment, typically the mouth of the Belon or Marenne rivers, where fresh and salt water blend. There, their golden flesh firms and the shellfish attain their full wild flavour.
The creuse is everyman’s oyster. Its flavour is easy, fresh and sprightly, evoking bracing sea breezes and sea water. It is raised in deep waters, then transferred to less salty shallow beds called claires to mature. It is typically a pale ivory lined with black and brown, though some attain a gorgeous turquoise green hue due to their contact with a bluish-green algae. Although less intensely flavoured than the plate, the creuse is equally seductive.
For true oyster lovers, there’s really nothing better than tucking into a dozen on the half-shell at a seaside bistro, where you can look out and see the sparkling waters the shellfish were plucked from just hours before.
From North to South there are seven distinct growing regions: Normandy, North-Brittany, South-Brittany, West-Central, Marennes-Oléron, Arcachon, and the Mediterranean. Although some of these areas are far more famous than others, they all produce excellent oysters.